September 19, 2017

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Deliberate Research and Inclusive History: A Chat with Sarah Albee | Nonfiction Matters

Sarah Albee (Why’d They Wear That?Bugged: How Insects Changed HistoryPoop Happened: A History of the World From the Bottom Up) doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty historical and biological facts of life. In fact, she reveals in the research process how she looks at history from the viewpoint of everyday people and everyday things. SLJ spoke with the prolific nonfiction author about how she begins her research, how she integrates inclusive viewpoints into her explorations of history, and what she’s working on next.

Your books take a unique view of history, focusing on everyday things like bugs, toilets, or what people wear. What inspires you to write about the “little things,” and why do you think they’re important?

I write about what fascinates me. And little things—like insects and microbes—can have a BIG impact on human history. I also believe that it’s the “little things” that can spark a kid’s curiosity. For instance, when I was a kid, I really wanted to know how a knight in armor managed to go to the bathroom. Sometimes one question like that can lead to a whole book.

Sarah Albee

Author Sarah Albee

You’ve been working with and for kids, on Sesame Street, as a parent and educator, and as an author for quite a few years. Do you see a difference in how history is being taught in schools and how kids learn about history today and how you learned history when you were a child?

Absolutely, and it’s really exciting to see. It’s a great time to be a nonfiction writer—and reader. There are so many fantastic books for kids now, especially those that feature less “traditional” historical figures and events. Now you see books that feature people of color, women, and kids. And there are more stories of everyday life—social history, which is my favorite history to write (and read) about. There is also less emphasis on “facts” and more on interpreting events of the past. And editors encourage us to tell a more nuanced story than the ones I learned when I was in school. For instance, I just wrote a biography of George Washington (for early elementary school kids), and my editor was 100 percent behind my request to include the enslaved people who were a big part of his story.

I also very shrewdly married a high school history teacher. My husband is one of those exciting, dynamic teachers who is constantly rethinking the ways he teaches and the ways his students learn, and I get to learn from him, too.

I love reading the fascinating information you dig up on your blog. When you’re researching, how do you decide what to include and what to leave out?

Why'd They Wear ThatI call it the “Wait. What?” effect. I might be reading or interviewing someone or perhaps listening to a story on the radio, and I come across a story or a fact that makes me stop short and pay attention. Just like athletes who train every day, we writers get better and better at our job the more we do it. I’ve learned to sort out nuggets of information that I think will be useful. If I find something utterly fascinating but can’t fit it into a book, I blog about it. And often, my blog posts spark another book idea! I love my job.

If you could go back and change one thing in a book you’ve previously written, what would it be?

Oh, there are many things! Of course, when one writes books that span history from ancient times to the present, they’ll inevitably cry for an update. I’d love to add Zika to my Bugged book, for instance. I’d love to add new advancements in sanitation to my Poop book. And I’d love to review every word of every book to make sure everything is perfect and correct. And yet it’s also important to keep moving and discovering new things to write about.

What are some topics you hope to write about in the future?

My favorite subject to write about is the intersection of history with science. I could research all day long about the history of medicine and disease and public health and never be bored. That’s one reason I love Gail Jarrow’s books. Our missions are in alignment. (She’s also a lovely person.)

My next two books are going to be about poison in history and dogs in history. Those are two books that I can talk about because I’ve signed contracts for them and they’ve been announced. I wish I could tell you about the next six books I have in the pipeline, but I have to wait until they’re for sure! Stay tuned!

How do you start research for a book?

I have a three-sided approach to research. The first is reading widely. I try to read as many primary andpoop-happened2-180x225 secondary sources as I can about my topic.

The second is talking to experts and knowledge-keepers. These exchanges may be in the form of personal interviews, Skype visits, or emails/Twitter messages for quicker info. An “expert” does not have to be a famous professor or scientist, although it sometimes is. During school visits, I tell kids that sometimes just an older person (everyone is old to them) can be a valuable resource—someone who lived at the time about which they are writing. A grandparent or a friend’s grandparent can be an invaluable source of information.

The third part of my research is what I call “experience.” It may include travel, but we nonfiction kid book writers don’t get massive travel budgets (actually, I get no travel budget). But we can still get outside and experience our topic. For instance, when I was researching a series about animals and needed to learn more about lions and elephants and giraffes, I couldn’t afford to fly to Africa. So I did the next best thing: I went to the zoo.

Museums, historic sites, and historical societies are also wonderful resources.

Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to include diversity in nonfiction than in fiction?

It depends somewhat on the topic, but I think that a writer should always, always be thinking about how to write inclusively. As an English speaker from an Anglo European society, I am limited by barriers of language to mostly English-speaking sources, or those that were translated into English.

Many Native cultures have historically embodied an oral tradition, and so the lack of a written record can be another challenge for those of us researching the history of non–Anglo European cultures. And yet a major part of my mission as a nonfiction writer is to tell the stories of people whose [tales] have not been told, those of ordinary men, women, and children, of laborers and soldiers and others denied access to a formal education. Chroniclers and artists from the past were under pressure to represent the lives of their important/wealthy patrons, so much of the history and art that has survived depicts wealthy Anglo Europeans. But the other stories need to be told.

How do you approach including diverse people and cultures in your books?

You have to be very deliberate about it and make a point of delving into their stories. A classic example is Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole. If his accounts are to be believed, he and he alone “discovered” the Pole. Of course, we know now that Matthew Henson, the African American member of his expedition, was essential to the success of the expedition. Had Henson not befriended the Inuit [and] learned their language, how to dress for the climate, how to find food, [and] how to travel most efficiently, Peary would never have made it. And then there are the four Inuit people who made the final leg of the journey with Henson and Peary. We now know their names, at least. But as historians, we need to look beyond the accounts written only by Anglo European chroniclers, who may have had a great deal of self-interest in telling only part of the story.

Another classic example is Sacagawea’s role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. Without her help, and without her survival and diplomacy skills, the expedition might have A) starved or B) been killed by hostile warriors. Nowadays, she’s starting to get a bit of credit, but there are so many more stories to uncover. We need to work harder.

BuggedWhat do you hope readers will take away from your books?

I hope they’ll get excited about history and see that the past is relevant and fascinating and essential to understanding today’s world. The past is what happened. History is the stories we choose to tell about the past. And there are so many stories that have yet to be told.

What would you say to a kid who says research is “boring”?

I would start by asking her what she thinks “research” means. Then I’d show her what it actually can mean. At school visits, I talk to kids a lot about research, and I love to see how excited they get about it once they realize that research does not mean only books and Internet searches.

I show them pictures of my visit to the Paris sewers and to the poison plant garden (at Cornell University). I show them the three-hole privy at Mount Vernon. I show them pictures from my visit to the Museum of Health and Medicine, including the liver of someone who’d died of arsenic poison. I talk about how I ate bugs as part of the research for my Bugged book and how I wore a tight corset for a whole day as part of my research for Why’d They Wear That. By the time we’re finished, I hope that kids realize just how awesome research can be.

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Jennifer Wharton About Jennifer Wharton

Jennifer Wharton is the youth services librarian at the Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. You can follow more of her library adventures at jeanlittlelibrary.blogspot.com.

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